To many, the name of Ulysses reminds them of the greatest novel of the 20th Century written by James Joyce.
Sherif Asfoury in his Ulysses Return did not attempt to imitate James Joyce. Instead, he created a world in a different dimension where dictatorship rules and the big brother is watching.
The novel starts with a coup d’état taking down the fifth republic in the imaginary state of the Gawhara, or the Diamond. The rebels established the “After Fifth” republic. The rebel’s leader is an army general who is also a doctor and psychologist; a new type of leader who has theories about manipulating the masses and how giving them constant hope is key to ruling and staying at the helm.
The fictional world created by Asfoury was coated with a high sense of humour to try to disguise the strong mockery that the writer hit the political regime with. The names of the characters are funny, albeit insinuating.
The coup leader is Neron El-Kashef, or the savior as he was called by the media. The name Neron brings to mind the Roman emperor who burned Rome. The main broadcaster on TV is Shahinaz El-Batikhi, the surname means watermelon, which is a comic term used to mock someone for always being superficial and moronic. Her main talent is tooting the horn of the ruling power whoever they are; she does that with smugness that falls well with the new ruler like it did for the previous one.
The writer produces many other Shahinazes, girls who are there to embellish the ego of the men of power; some sort of escort service.
The trend continues with other names, ridiculing the people in power, putting them in a caricature form. The purpose was to demean the idea of absolute power in the hands of the people with limited vision and intelligence; they only care about power.
The novel falls under the Dark Humour category. Satirical events and reactions by the various characters lead the reader to smile and realise the truth in what they read.
Under dictatorship the decisions are made haphazardly by unqualified people in their posts based not on their merit or efficiency.
On the day of the coup, while celebrating the new regime, Ulysses, son of Joyce, makes a joke that makes the crowds mock the troops; he was arrested and sent “beyond the sun,” meaning to be taken and not to be heard of again. That was the trigger that started the bombardment which Asfoury used against the idea of dictatorship.
The fantasy part is when we discover that Ulysses is a time traveller. He was a Native American in a parallel universe named “Traveller without a Horse." He was also a movie star named Sameh living in the same time of Ulysses.
Despite the complex storylines, Asfoury managed to use a strong structure and an easy language to keep the reader’s interest in the story, with a keen curiosity to reach the conclusion of the After Fifth republic; will it survive or fall?
The funny writing style adopted by Asfoury does not exclude depth from the novel. The readers discover a writer who pushes them to learn more about poetry, political philosophy, theories of ruling, songs, and many other topics. The clear example was Bob Dylan's song “Blowing in the Wind.” Asfoury raised the curiosity of the readers about one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Dylan is the only songwriter to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 2016. The lyrics were translated and inserted in English as well, an invitation to the reader to listen to the song and learn more about Dylan.
The problem with sarcastic writing is that it confuses the reader and makes him/her lose track of the events. Asfoury avoided that trap through a clear, precise language that shows his ability and mastery of the language. The jokes were an addition to the ideas, not the opposite. Mixing the day-to-day language with the classical Arabic was graceful, it was actually correctly used. Transferring the jokes into classical Arabic would have been an awkward move.
In El-Gawhara the pandemic was called Koskosi 2020. Another funny word; Koskosi is the name of a well-known dish that originated in North Africa. Naming the virus after it increases the comic layer of the novel, and the absurdity of life under the rule of General Neron.
The test of time regarding any novel cannot be predicted. So questioning if this novel will be read in a few years is a legitimate one. Asfoury stands firm against injustice, oppression, and absolutism in an original sarcastic way that may be the reason for passing the test of time. It is, simply, a reference.
The novel is inspired by many novels such as George Orwell’s 1984, in addition to Ulysses with his own touch coming from the miserable political history of the Middle East.
In a strong quote, Asfoury stated that “whether a Republic or a Kingdom, no matter how justified by political theories, the power struggle motivated by interests and greed will always lead to bitter conflicts, and these conflicts, no matter how covered with civility, will end up in murder and crimes against the losing party.”